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Is Subscription the New Membership?

Is Subscription the New Membership?

For decades, associations have used a tried and true method to earn revenue: sell annual memberships to a group of targeted people or companies, and provide a suite of benefits in exchange. A typical sales pitch might sound something like: “"For only $500 per year, gain access to a community of your peers, receive discounts on affiliate products/services, come together to advocate for the good of our profession, and get a discount on our annual conference." A simplified example, however a familiar one to most in the association sector.

The standard membership model has worked for many years. If it didn't, there would not be thousands of associations operating right here in Canada every day. The question is: can this model of primary revenue be sustained in the years ahead?

Technology is advancing at a pace faster than any time in our history, and more than ever organizations across every sector are being impacted by it. There is a generational change happening right in front of our eyes: as Millennials and Generation Z enter the workforce, they bring with them a completely different viewpoint: they are used to getting exactly what they want, when they want it, and how they want it. They are the generation of Uber instead of taxis, Airbnb instead of hotels, and Amazon instead of Walmart.

How can associations adapt to this changing view of the world, while still driving revenue through the concept of membership? Subscription might be the answer.


Subscription vs. Standard Membership for Associations

Subscription and membership have many things in common -- some people may even use the words interchangeably. The primary difference between the two is the perception of permanence. Membership suggests a more permanent relationship -- you are becoming part of something and might stay for a long time. Subscription, on the other hand, suggests lower permanence and higher flexibility, allowing a subscriber to increase or decrease the level of commitment at any time.

It could be argued that the higher permanence of membership is more appealing to an association than subscription, and this is true if the number of members you are signing up (or percentage of the profession you represent) is regularly increasing. Could you attract a higher number of "members" with a more flexible, subscription approach? What might that look like?

In traditional membership, you provide a suite of benefits in exchange for one fee (often with several -- dare I say, many -- variations). If you took a subscription model and applied it to a typical membership organization, the result would be each benefit broken down into individual products or services that could be subscribed to. You would end up with more of an a la carte menu for your members to choose from, and the flexibility for those members to add or remove any one product or service at any time.

However, to move from traditional membership to a subscription model would be a huge shift for any organization, and getting board approval would be challenging (to say the least.) Changing how you position, price, and sell the primary source of your revenue -- and your organization's directly connected survival -- may feel overwhelming.

So how might the concept of subscription help your organization? In a word: flexibility.


Shifting Associations Towards Subscription

By separating out your benefits into subscribable products, you can achieve two things:


  1. You can bundle these products/services together for one price, and call it membership -- keep the traditional model available.
  2. You can begin to experiment with selling subscriptions to some of the more obvious components of membership that may be of specific value to existing (or better yet, new) users.


How can you get there? Having the right technology solutions will be very important to make the leap from membership to subscription. Modern platforms like Wicket have been developed to provide organizations with flexibility not only in membership and subscriptions but also with integration with other great software platforms. Once you have the right technology solutions in place, now you can begin to experiment. Take one component of your membership, and offer it to a new set of potential users as a subscription. Test it, measure it, and iterate.

In the non-profit sector, there is much talk of disruption. It's happening all around us, and whether you accept it or not, your sector -- and the services your organization offers -- could be someone else's sights for disruption. Get ahead of this, and become a disruptor yourself by rethinking the traditional membership model.



Beyond the differences between standard membership and subscription, as detailed by Jeff, there are other ways to bring value to an association's members. Donald Belfall discusses this critical topic in his book, Creating Value for Members: A Strategic Guide for Associations. Get your copy to find out how your organization may improve how it delivers and manages the value it offers to its members.



Jeff Horne, Membership


Membership, Guest Contributor



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